cat with big blue eyes

“But Ma, it wasn’t me!”

Most cat lovers are aware that un-neutered male cats will spray urine on walls, furniture, and elsewhere in a hormone-fueled effort to mark their territory. But many pet parents are surprised when males that are “fixed” will spray, or when female cats—spayed and un-spayed—exhibit this same noxious behavior, says Dr. Cathy Lund of City Kitty, a feline-only veterinary practice in Providence, R.I.

So why do female and neutered male cats spray? It is not about dominance or territory, says Dr. Cindi Cox of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston. Cats might spray because of underlying medical conditions, litter box issues, or anxiety, the latter being most common cause.

Possible medical causes include cystitis (bladder inflammation caused by urinary tract infection, crystals in the urine, bladder stones [cystic calculi], or other causes of bladder inflammation) or sterile cystitis (bladder inflammation that is typically not caused by an infection, crystals, or stones), which cause discomfort and can result in elimination outside of the litter box. If your cat is spraying, begin by taking him or her to the vet to rule out any medical issues, Dr. Cox says.

What Exactly is Cat Spraying?

Inappropriate urination, whatever the cause, can manifest with cats squatting and peeing on a bed, rug, or pile of laundry. Or in the typical “spraying” scenario, the cat will stand, back up against a wall, door, or piece of furniture, and spray urine on a vertical surface.

To understand this behavior and stop it, cat parents need to think like a cat, Dr. Lund says. “Cats are control freaks. They like to feel in charge,” she notes.

That is why stress and anxiety, which bring on insecurity, fear, and timidity, can cause your cat to spray, the doctors say. “What they are doing is trying to feel more secure,” Dr. Lund explains. “So the important concept for cat owners to realize is that their cat doesn’t think their urine smells bad. (Spraying) makes cats feel more content.”

Getting to the Source of the Spraying

Investigate what could be the source of your cat’s stress and figure out how to eliminate it, Dr. Cox says. One possibility is too many cats in the household, or the addition of a new cat that is a bit of a bully. In the former case, the number of felines can make it hard for a more-timid cat to get to the litter box, sleeping area, or food bowl, she says. Pet parents might not be aware that their cat is feeling intimidated.

“One cat might be a bully or is harassing another cat without you seeing it,” Dr. Lund says. “A threat to another cat is just a stare. It’s an act of aggression, but we don’t see it.”

To solve the problem, provide multiple sleeping areas, food/water bowls, and litter boxes so the cats are not competing for resources, Dr. Cox says. When a cat joins your household, try “gradual introduction of new cats using scent exchange, treat rewards, and calming pheromone sprays,” she says.

Nosy neighbors

Sometimes the stressor is literally outside your window in the form of stray or neighboring outdoor cats.

“Your cats see them outside, and they get a little wigged out by it,” Dr. Lund says. This can trigger them to spray near doors and windows. Dr. Lund puts it this way: For cats, spraying gives them the security that locking a deadbolt gives us. To remove this stressor, close blinds on windows to keep your animal from seeing those outdoor cats, Dr. Cox suggests.

Your cat isn’t mad at you

Inappropriate urination also can be caused by disruption of your cat’s daily routine. For example, Dr. Lund says cat parents will go on vacation and have a friend feed their cat and change the litter box. They come home to discover that their cat has peed on their favorite chair and think their cat is mad because they went away. This is not the case. It is more likely that the cat is anxious because you are not there, and perhaps the litter box is not as clean as she likes.

Fussy felines

In fact, the state of your cat’s litter box might be the source of the spraying behavior. Placement, cleanliness, type of litter, etc., can cause your cat to prefer areas other than the litter box. To address this, “make the litter box like the Ritz Carlton,” Dr. Lund says.

Spraying is a complicated problem, she notes, and requires a multi-pronged solution. “I take a shotgun approach to solve it,” Dr. Lund says. This means ruling out medical causes, addressing possible harassment from other cats, keeping the litter box pristine, and trying an anti-anxiety medication like Prozac.

Of course, not all cats require behavior modification medications such as Prozac to eliminate their spraying behavior. There are also natural remedies to help with spraying behavior, which should be discussed with a veterinarian prior to using.

It also is important to thoroughly scrub the area where the cat has urinated, cleaning it with enzymatic deodorizers to get rid of the smell, which your cat can find appealing.

Working with your vet, you should be able to solve the problem in a way that makes everyone happy. In all cases, cats should be spayed and neutered to prevent the hormonal influence as well as for the health of the cat, Dr. Cox notes.

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